Thursday 8 December 2016

Hope and horror on the line: National League winners and losers

Damian Lawlor assesses the winners and losers from the National League

Published 12/04/2015 | 02:30

Jason Ryan, Kildare manager
Jason Ryan, Kildare manager

ANOTHER Allianz Football League campaign is close to wrapping up and while it's been a spring rife with debate about the standard of games, the competition had much to intrigue supporters.

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There was no shortage of managers who saw their game plans exposed and looked on in frustration as big players failed to perform. Many settled for mid-table mediocrity while a handful were truly delighted with their team's progress.

GOOD LEAGUE FOR . . .

John Evans

(Roscommon)

They say that winning is like shaving - you do it every day or else you look like a bum - but John Evans has no worries on that front. Roscommon's revival under him continues apace.

This promotion specialist has overseen a sparkling two seasons in charge of the Rossies and feels there is more in the tank. They were boosted by another Connacht under 21 success last Saturday evening - their fourth in six years - and now look forward to life in Division 1 next year.

Evans may be in the right place at the right time, but he is bringing everyone together in the right manner and playing a style of football that is both adaptable and enjoyable.

It's a small county with only 64,000 registered citizens at the last census, but their development squad system is the envy of many and their schools teams are going well too.

Evans took Tipperary from Division 4 to Division 2 but has now gone one better with Roscommon.

"You're in the top eight in the country, that's the first thing," he says. "The second thing is to be part of this group of lads, who are ambitious, young and still learning. It's great to be able to nurture them along, develop their skills, their pattern of play and see them growing into it."

The team has a defensive plan and then an attacking system which is overseen by former Limerick and Laois boss Liam Kearns. Roscommon scored nine goals in eight games which shows they could cut it in the top flight next year. But they'll have to tighten at the back as they conceded 6-96 too.

They scored 24 points against Kildare and even in defeat against Laois they fired 0-16. If they can shore up a little they could consolidate their place in Division 1.

For now, however, they have a Division 2 final to look forward to and they'll be gunning for a Connacht title.

Jim McCorry

(Down)

McCorry has taken Down back to the top flight in his first season in charge. Not bad. If there were manager of the month awards in the GAA, McCorry might already have two this season. He took on a Down squad lacking in big names but introduced plenty of new talent.

Players like Conor Laverty epitomise what Down are about. Laverty was named man of the match against Cavan recently, having got married the previous Saturday. Even as his wedding celebrations were winding down, Laverty was on the training pitch on the Sunday morning with his team-mates.

They had five wins from seven games and topped the Division 2 table - the most topsy-turvy tier of the lot. They won three games very late on but moved the ball exceptionally well throughout the season and made some brilliant interchanges.

Former Armagh player McCorry has made a huge difference but so too have players like Kilcoo's Paul Devlin who has operated at wing-back, wing-forward and midfield so far, giving his manager serious options.

They will tackle the game's aristocrats next year confident that having scored 3-13 against Kildare, 1-17 against Galway, 2-14 against Westmeath and 3-12 against Laois, they can at least put up a tally.

Pete McGrath

(Fermanagh)

While McCorry is enjoying his stint with Down, veteran manager Pete McGrath is also reaping huge enjoyment from his spell in charge of Fermanagh.

The highlight of their league campaign was coming from five points down to get a draw against Armagh at the Athletic Grounds, something nobody would have thought them capable of last season. But they are clearly playing for the manager. He has been described as 'old school' but it shouldn't be assumed that he hasn't moved with the times. McGrath doesn't complicate things - his team has some good forwards and they like to get the ball into them quickly. The others work hard around the pitch and it's paying dividends.

Promotion must rank pretty high alongside everything he has done in the game, considering his limited resources.

"I haven't thought about it in those terms because it is a work in progress," McGrath said. "Maybe when my time there is finished is the time to appraise it, but it is going well and I'm certainly enjoying it and getting a great kick out of working with players who want to better themselves. When you get a bit of success, it makes it even more worthwhile."

As for the players, well they can draw from a man who has won Ulster titles at minor, under 21 and senior level with Down, and All-Irelands at minor and senior level. They play Antrim in the championship and who says they can't continue this fine run?

BAD LEAGUE FOR . . .

Jason Ryan

(Kildare)

While it's all sweetness and light in some counties with small populations and few resources, it's bitter and brittle in Kildare where numbers are high and the backing has always been rich.

Kildare are in freefall having dropped again, this time to Division 3. Jason Ryan's future was discussed at a county board meeting last week where it was agreed that they would stick with him for the summer, but unless they enjoy an extended run, he may not be in charge next season.

There had been reports of low player morale, but they have over two months to get themselves right to face either Laois or Carlow on June 6 with a likely meeting with Dublin in store.

"We can't do anything about what has happened, what we have to do is improve what goes on over the next few months," said Ryan. "I am often a critic of the time between League and Championship, but this time I am happy to have the nine weeks. It gives us a chance to regroup."

They conceded 7-100 in the league so that's an area that needs Ryan's immediate attention.

Tom Cribbin

(Westmeath)

Tom Cribbin was horrified after his side's relegation and he let fly at the 'big players' in his squad, raging that they hadn't delivered.

"You see young Killian Daly working so hard in defence, and poor young Shane Dempsey expected to come on and win matches for you in attack, while senior players look on. That's just not f**kin' on, excuse my language," he said.

Cribbin is always honest in his views but he has split supporters in the county.

Many would agree with him but some supporters feel that he should have addressed the issue in the privacy of the dressing room.

Others, however, including former manager Paul Bealin, think that his comments were entirely reasonable. The air must be cleared soon.

It all started so positively for them - they won two of their first three games but then lost four in a row.

Mickey Harte

(Tyrone)

As for Tyrone, the competition didn't start well, nor did it end well. Four fringe players departed the squad following their relegation from Division 1 last week - Shea McGuigan, brother of Brian, 2008 All-Ireland-winning minor Paddy McNiece, Dwayne Quinn and Emmett McKenna all walked away from the Red Hands.

They were disillusioned with their lack of game time during the McKenna Cup and the League, but the return of experienced duo Joe McMahon and Dermot Carlin for last Sunday's clash against Kerry may also have contributed to the quartet's reasons for walking as McMahon and Carlin had been off the scene for much of the League.

With the team lacking leadership and over-relying on Seán Cavanagh, only Darren McCurry has shown any continued steadiness in attack. Further questions about morale in the camp have now been raised ahead of their Ulster SFC clash against Donegal on May 17.

This is the first time in Mickey Harte's managerial career that he has not been guaranteed the job for the following season.

After the McKenna Cup there was a clear-out of the squad but that doesn't look to have had the desired effect.

Still, they came very close to avoiding the drop, and you wouldn't rule out a fightback this early in the year. But right now the clash with Donegal looks ominous.

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